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Teaching with Special Collections & Archives

A guide for faculty interested in instruction sessions using Special Collections & Archives

Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy

In 2018, a joint task force between the Society of American Archivists and the Rare Books & Manuscripts Section of ACRL released the Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy. This document provides twenty-two learning objectives related to primary source literacy; these objectives can provide a helpful launching point when considering a collaboration with Special Collections & Archives. The full Guidelines document is available online, and are excerpted here: 

These learning objectives articulate broadly the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed by researchers to successfully conceptualize, find, analyze, and use primary sources. These objectives are intended to be illustrative and are neither comprehensive nor prescriptive, and are not presented in any natural order or progression of skill acquisition. They do not specify measurable outcomes or benchmarks for instruction, but can be of assistance in articulating specific learning goals that can be assessed.

The instructor teaching primary source literacy may choose to use any combination of these objectives and to teach the individual objectives at any level of mastery that fits the needs of the users. Developing primary source literacy is an ongoing process that deepens as users gain experience interacting with these types of sources.

A person knowledgeable in the use of primary sources can:

1. Conceptualize

A. Distinguish primary from secondary sources for a given research question. Demonstrate an understanding of the interrelatedness of primary and secondary sources for research.

B. Articulate what might serve as primary sources for a specific research project within the framework of an academic discipline or area of study.

C. Draw on primary sources to generate and refine research questions.

D. Understand that research is an iterative process and that as primary sources are found and analyzed the research question(s) may change.

2. Find and Access

A. Identify the possible locations of primary sources.

B. Use appropriate, efficient, and effective search strategies in order to locate primary sources. Be familiar with the most common ways primary sources are described, such as catalog records and archival finding aids.

C. Distinguish between catalogs, databases, and other online resources that contain information about sources, versus those that contain digital versions, originals, or copies of the sources themselves.

D. Understand that historical records may never have existed, may not have survived, or may not be collected and/or publicly accessible. Existing records may have been shaped by the selectivity and mediation of individuals such as collectors, archivists, librarians, donors, and/or publishers, potentially limiting the sources available for research.

E. Recognize and understand the policies and procedures that affect access to primary sources, and that these differ across repositories, databases, and collections.

3. Read, Understand, and Summarize

A. Examine a primary source, which may require the ability to read a particular script, font, or language, to understand or operate a particular technology, or to comprehend vocabulary, syntax, and communication norms of the time period and location where the source was created.

B. Identify and communicate information found in primary sources, including summarizing the content of the source and identifying and reporting key components such as how it was created, by whom, when, and what it is.

C. Understand that a primary source may exist in a variety of iterations, including excerpts, transcriptions, and translations, due to publication, copying, and other transformations.

4. Interpret, Analyze, and Evaluate

A. Assess the appropriateness of a primary source for meeting the goals of a specific research or creative project.

B. Critically evaluate the perspective of the creator(s) of a primary source, including tone, subjectivity, and biases, and consider how these relate to the original purpose(s) and audience(s) of the source.

C. Situate a primary source in context by applying knowledge about the time and culture in which it was created; the author or creator; its format, genre, publication history; or related materials in a collection.

D. As part of the analysis of available resources, identify, interrogate, and consider the reasons for silences, gaps, contradictions, or evidence of power relationships in the documentary record and how they impact the research process. 

E. Factor physical and material elements into the interpretation of primary sources including the relationship between container (binding, media, or overall physical attributes) and informational content, and the relationship of original sources to physical or digital copies of those sources.

F. Demonstrate historical empathy, curiosity about the past, and appreciation for historical sources and historical actors.

5. Use and Incorporate

A. Examine and synthesize a variety of sources in order to construct, support, or dispute a research argument.

B. Use primary sources in a manner that respects privacy rights and cultural contexts.

C. Cite primary sources in accordance with appropriate citation style guidelines or according to repository practice and preferences (when possible).

D. Adhere to copyright and privacy laws when incorporating primary source information in a research or creative project.